By Fred Edoreh
The eviction of thousands of businesses at the National Stadium, Lagos, mid-2020, came as a shock to many. It was more so as the action was taken after several months of business lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, worse still, the businesses were given only about two weeks to vacate after which their shops and structures were demolished.
On a rough estimate, the facility hosted about 5,000 businesses and jobs on which many anchored their livelihood for years. All got lost within a twinkle of eye and many of the victims, unable to recover, are currently suffering untold hardship.
A few are said to have died in depression. Some, not knowing where else to go, resorted to trading outside the stadium gates. Some have relocated to their villages, not having the means for another startup. Others have remained stranded and groaning in penury. The toll on their family life, marriage and children’s education can only be imagined.
The ministry insisted that many of the structures were illegal, ramshackle and outside the original plan of the stadium. This is even though the spaces were allocated to them and the structures and businesses approved by the stadium management and in some cases with MOUs with the ministry’s directorate of facilities.
The ministry said it was embarking on a clean up and renovation of the facility, possibly to prepare it for concession. Alas, the renovation works were essentially on re-grassing the playing pitch in the main bowl and refurbishing the scoreboard.
Closed for almost the whole of last year, the facility was recently opened to operate only till 6pm daily, ostensibly to restrain the continuation of entertainment businesses that had emerged in the stadium.
A few people may have misimpressed the Honourable Minister of Sports that the stadium is not a place for entertainment hangouts and sundry businesses, leading him to embark on a plan of restoration of the facility to its original design of the 1970s that made no provisions for businesses.
Truth is the historical sports-specific designs of the early century stadiums have proven to be unprofitable. Stadiums that are not grounds for home clubs with weekly sports competitions and do not incorporate other businesses are largely unsustainable. Without adequate streams for generation of internal revenue, there is always the problem of raising needed funds for their maintenance and upgrades and this has been a challenge for the government with respect to the Lagos and Abuja national stadiums which are redundant year in year out. The consequence of this has been their progressive dilapidation through the decades.
The new global approach to stadium design and management is to infuse a great deal of business platforms, especially hospitality and entertainment outlets. This is with a view to creating a partnership with the host population by providing them economic opportunities and benefits. Thus, stadiums now redefine social and commercial life in the neighborhoods that host them.
The businesses contribute to the pool of revenue for the maintenance of the facility and create a sentimental, social and emotional connect between the population and the stadium by providing them extra attraction to the facility besides sports.
Sports in itself and on match days alone is not enough. The fun and entertainment that comes with it is what provides the satisfaction in such a way that going to the stadium becomes part of the people’s social and cultural life.
Owners of the big stadiums in advanced countries have embraced this revolution to good effect by constituting their facilities into fun places to not only attract fans to their clubs but to also ensure they enjoy great experiences when they come.
Many of the modern stadiums have luxury clubhouses that operate regularly, lounges that are rented for meetings and conferences through the week, fun zones for children and attendants who want more fun other than the games, exquisite bars and restaurants that have become go-to places for the city dwellers and tourists.
This is why the eviction of businesses at the national stadium needs to be revisited. What, for instance, was wrong with the presence of sports wear and equipment shops at the stadium? What is wrong with thousands of people coming to recreate at the stadium runways either in the mornings or evenings, and thereafter sitting for a drink or dining with family and friends within the environment?
Many of the recreation sports people come usually after close of work or when free at weekends and they do not constitute any form of nuisance. The Tennis section, for instance, had been maintained by a recreation club of mostly businessmen who only find time to play in the evenings and relax till about 10pm before going home. What is the point in displacing them?
The swimming pool which was in bad shape for about 20 years was only recently restored and, the financier engaged by the ministry introduced bar, restaurant and entertainment services that attract both swimmers and fun seekers with a view to generating sufficient fund to sustain its maintenance.
Pool side bars with the alluring scenery of blue water is a major selling point for top class hotels and resorts. Why can’t we have same at the stadium which has an Olympic size pool not even often used for competitions? Besides, the limitation of its operation would constrain the generation of revenue for its maintenance which can possibly return the pool to its decried bad state.
What was wrong with having joggers and aerobic sports practitioners using the ancillary parts of the stadium, especially in a system with dearth of sporting facilities in the inner parts of the city for the recreation, health and wellness of the population?
As we speak, breaking (break dancing) as a form of sports has been introduced into the Olympics as a scoring event, yet we have displaced the young men and women who engage in it from using the stadium instead of encouraging and helping to organise them not only for the worth of the possibility of winning medals in it but also for supporting them into that emerging sports career.
Besides the thousands of businesses and jobs which the stadium hosted, it presented a huge weekly market place with the convergence of over 200,000 people for recreation sports at weekends. With the present challenges in the economy of our nation, we should know better than to destroy such a business platform that serves and supports the people. We ought better to adopt, adapt and leverage them as economic and enterprise assets for the good of the people.
It must be emphasised that the business activities in the stadiums have not impeded the smooth running of sports in any way. Rather they have complemented the sports scene by providing services and retaining attraction to the stadium.
The problems of our sports and the poor state of our stadiums are clearly to be located in administration, revenue generation, management and the effectiveness of our federations in funding development and competitions. The ordinary people and their businesses have no hand in the fall.
As it is, the Lagos national stadium has been relegated into more waste as an asset. The same goes for the Abuja stadium for which I will suggest that the ministry takes urgent measures to activate its commercial life, especially so as the design is with inbuilt shops which have been locked down since after it hosted the 2003 All Africa Games. Without this, the Abuja stadium can never get life nor be sustained.
There is however no doubt that these activities have to be regulated and controlled. Design and structure specifications can be spelt out with sections in which the businesses and commerce can be located. The maximum possible charges have to be made on the businesses, including instructions on sanitation and security. But, it is a “no no” not to bring back the people and businesses to their stadium.
Given the present state of our economy, we all know that the talk of building a standard shopping mall before the business can return is far-fetched. The people can pay for it, if need be, while they are operating. Equally so, the talk of concession is a long walk. We have heard it said many times over and seen it silenced too.
We appeal to the Honorable Minister for a rethink, to give the people back their livelihood as part of the offerings to sports.